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Do we love or hate long games?

"Theoretically any game could stretch on infinitely."

The “third wind” is something I experience while playing sports. I think most of us at least know that a “second wind” refers to finding a burst of energy again, after you’ve already keeled over and questioned your own mortality. You might not actually move faster or jump higher or do anything better at all, but you definitely feel better, like you’re young again. But, inevitably, that vat of energy dissipates as well. The “third wind,” then, is when I enter a state where my body is accustomed to being tired. I feel like I can move at that speed forever. I think, “Yes, this is the new normal.” Watching and playing long League of Legends games is exactly like that for me — after a certain point in the game, past the pining for someone to just end it already, I want the game to play on forever.

I got to thinking about this quote from Roger Angell (that I found in this article by Cathy Yang):  “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

Like Cathy I am fascinated by this idea, which of course applies to League of Legends as well. Theoretically any game could stretch on infinitely — even though a clock ticks at the top of the screen, the actual ending isn’t triggered until one team’s Nexus is destroyed. The clock is doing its best to map out an infinite future, and always we cut eventually it short. League has implemented mechanics that make it easier to end the game — like turning minions into little freight trains deep into the game or making subsequent Elder Dragon buffs stronger — but there is still a kind of beauty in imagining a game that never ends. If we are forever suspended in time, as young as the moment right before we’re transported to the digital landscape that is the Summoner’s Rift, then surely we are brought crashing back to reality the moment it ends. And all that suspended time rushes from us at once.

Ignore the poetic musing for a moment, though, and let me say my gut reaction is that I hate long games. Much of this stems from memories of actually playing out long games. After a certain point in a Solo Queue match — 45 minutes, for example — a little voice in my head says, “I don’t care if I win. I just want this to be over.” This is amplified if my team is waiting on me to shotcall, and then amplified again based on how many points of attack we are dealing with. Both teams slamming it down mid? Not too bad — there is not much thinking. A Tryndamere roleplaying Solid Snake in our jungle? Just end me.

This experience is mirrored in watching. Whenever the camera swaps to a split-screen POV, I want to smash my head into the monitor. I may let out some primal kind of yelp, and certainly I’ll lean forward or stand up. I remember, for example, KT Rolster’s 3rd game against Invictus Gaming in the Worlds Quarterfinals last year, where for a brief moment the camera actually panned incorrectly to the KT Nexus (thinking they’d lost). Thousands of us in Busan collectively paused in time to figure out what happened, and then we lost our shit when we realized KT actually won. You could literally see people rise from the crowd like fish bursting from the ocean towards the sun and a promise of hope, and then stare at each others mouths agape as they realized they couldn’t breathe.But what happens when it doesn’t end in that moment, and instead drags on for another 20 minutes — like TSM’s match against 100 Thieves two weeks ago. What if it drags on for another 60 minutes, like in SKT’s match against Jin Air last year (honestly, this game is still playing out in an alternate universe)? There is certainly a difference between two good teams playing a long game, which you might call a chess match, and then between two bad teams, which you might call a fiesta. But I don’t think that dictates whether you actually like the length of the match or not. The kind of joy in watching two teams struggle to win is that it is more relatable.

Our esports machine has a tendency to equate our watching experience back to traditional sports, but let me say there is no particular joy in watching two bottom of the barrel NBA teams fumble the ball up and down the court. Watching John Isner edge out Nicholas Mahut in an 11 hour match is not fun, and watching exhausted players hunch over to catch a breath is not something we are privy to seeing. Even if their brains fail them, we don’t see a physical manifestation of that (as Cathy talks about in her article). This has always been the distinct difference between esports and traditional sports — when we imagine the most iconic moments in League of Legends, there is a layer of separation between us and the player that we both enter. We imagine, together, that they are Ryze or Vayne or Rek’Sai. We are asked to take a leap of faith.

So when I say it is more relatable, I mean it in the sense that I too can be Orianna and then miss a critical ultimate or miss my Smite timing or Flash directly into a wall. And I also mean it in the sense that, on some level, we can hop onto the Summoner’s Rift and replicate parts of a game — which in the moment could feel similar even if it absolutely is not. I mean it in the sense that, if I wanted, I could load onto the Summoner’s Rift and look like Faker’s Ryze — if I were standing still with his skin on, or maybe even in a wondrous moment of outplaying the opponent.

Which is to say, if you allow it, I think the lean into esports can be such an engrossing and all-encompassing experience. Which is to say the long games can be so very draining. The early/mid/late triptych that we’ve spliced LoL games into is now in a state where early and mid are almost always finished in the same time frame. It’s the late game that can stretch forever, and if you’ll stay with me for a minute, it’s in this late hour phase that I feel like I can best explain my relationship with long games. Let me explain to you what it was like to work the closing shift at Taco Bell.

Once you got past the few dinner and late dinner rushes, there’d often be big lulls. We had three people in our closing shift, and generally I was on drive-thru and register duty. Between orders I’d wipe down dishes or rotate things out of the fryer. There was a lot of time to mull over my life, which was basically half of what I did as a teenager. And the night would just stretch and stretch in a timeless kind of way, like a movie that cuts to multiple shots of the same thing and no time has passed. Is this beginning to sound familiar to you yet — the panning back and forth to Baron and the lines of vision teams teeter on. Where simultaneously nothing is happening and everything is on the verge of happening.

Eventually we approach closing hours, and barring a mechanic coming off a late shift or the post-bar stragglers, it was the only time of the night that seemed to speed up. We would flatten skittles on the presser and we would sneak out back for quick smoke breaks of all sorts. This is the kind of cadence I think of when the two teams finally slam into each other in the late game, and one of them emerges victorious. Time speeds up as we realize a fight has actually decided the game.

But, you know, there is just something intoxicating about the delirious state of being when watching a long League of Legends game. There are few things that can replicate the vibe of a closing shift or graveyard shift or an overnight study session — in the middle of the day — quite like it. There is the third wind there, too — once you’ve settled into a rhythm, what you are doing feels as natural as breathing. You feel like you can breathe forever. That’s what it means to me for time to change its heartbeat: if it is relatively slow, then perhaps the world around us speeds up when we are locked into the game. And when it is relatively fast — the team fight finally triggering — everything else slows down. As if time itself wants to watch.

Do you know that feeling that permeates in you after a long game finally ends? It is not quite a sinking feeling when your team loses — if it’s a 60 minute game, then you’ve been braced for that reality for at least the past thirty minutes. It is more of a hunger, where you yearn to dive right back into it so that it might eventually carve out a different ending for you. One where your team wins, which if it does happen, of course, produces a kind of exhausting high that is like relief but not quite. It is more like when you are clocking out of work — there is a sense of conclusion to it, but you also know it will happen again. You will be back.

All of this is to say I do hate many aspects of the long game, but it’s in those late standoffs that I feel like I best understand why I continue to tune into League of Legends. The sense of that particular experience feels like one life cycle, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. And towards the end, when I can begin to feel my feet against the ground again, and the cars outside crescendo back into existence, I can’t help but not want to leave. I can’t help but want to see where else those games could take me.  

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